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Rays Have a ‘Nice Problem’ with Matt Moore

The Tampa Bay Rays organization has kept pace with powerful organizations in the American League East division for the past few years for one key reason: The ability to develop cheap, high-impacting talent through minor league development.

Entering 2011, the Rays’ FanGraphs Top 30 prospect list began with Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Desmond Jennings. Both Hellickson and Jennings have already cemented themselves as key MLB contributors . Moore – who was just promoted to the Majors for a ‘cup of coffee’ to finish off 2011 – should follow suit in ’12.

As I stated prior to the 2011 season:

“Moore could easily be a No. 1 prospect in a lot of organizations. He plays second fiddle in Tampa Bay’s system, though, to Hellickson. The club has been exceptionally patient with the young southpaw, moving him up one level at a time during his four-year career… he projects to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter.”

It seems a little hard to believe, given the praise that I heaped upon him before the season beban, but Moore has gotten even better. The 22-year-old southpaw began the year with double-A Montgomery and was nearly unhittable with opponents hitting just .185 against him (5.98 H/9) in 102.1 innings. His strikeout rate sat at 11.52 K/9, which is actually the lowest it’s ever been in his pro career – but far and away above league average. Moved up to triple-A for the final 52.2 innings of his season, Moore posted a strikeout rate of 13.50 K/9 and an opponents’ batting average of .178. Those quad-A sluggers did not faze him one bit.

The big reason for Moore’s improvements in 2011 can be seen in his walk rate. He posted rates of 5.12 BB/9 in 2009 and 3.79 in ’10. His rate in ’11 fell to 2.46 BB/9 in double-A and 3.08 in triple-A. Along with better control, the former eighth round pick out of a New Mexico high school also showed better fastball command, which helped him set up his secondary pitches, which include a swing-and-miss curveball. If there is one thing that I’d still like to see him improve upon, it’s his ground-ball rate, which sat at just 41 percent in triple-A. Increasing his ground-ball output will further help him while competing in the homer-happy AL East (Four AL East clubs are in the Top 5 in team home runs).

Wisely, although he’s clearly MLB-ready now, the organization resisted temptation to rush him through the Majors or promote him too quickly. His promotion now, though, gives him a chance to experience a playoff race and, if all goes well for the Rays, post-season atmosphere. Moore would have been added to the 40-man roster in November anyway (to avoid being eligible in the Rule 5 draft). His 155.0 total innings in ’11 is a modest increase over his 144.2 innings from a year ago so he shouldn’t see much action the rest of the way.

The biggest issue that Moore faces – right now – for 2012 is the lack of an available spot in the starting rotation, which is already quite strong with David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. The club could easily enter 2012 with six starting pitchers in preparation for an almost inevitable injury, or it could look to cash in on a strong ’11 season by veteran right-hander Shields (4.8 WAR). A trade could net the club some more offense. The Rays could also deal Niemann (1.5) or Davis (1.1), although both pitchers currently have depressed trade values.

Even though Shields’ trade value is at an all-time high, I would hang on to him. The organization is in ‘winning mode’ and both the Red Sox and Yankees are aging and vulnerable despite strong 2011 campaigns. A move of either Niemann or Davis to the bullpen, at least temporarily, would solve the problem of the depth in the starting rotation, as well as the lack of the same in the ‘pen.

However things play out, though, Moore should be a key member of the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation – and an early favorite for Rookie of the Year.